Why we have affairs

MIND MOVES Marie Murray The Chinese poet Chuo Wen-Chun is quoted as saying "Why should marriage bring only tears? All I wanted…

MIND MOVES Marie MurrayThe Chinese poet Chuo Wen-Chun is quoted as saying "Why should marriage bring only tears? All I wanted was a man with a single heart and we would stay together as our hair turned white, not somebody always wriggling after fish with his big bamboo rod."

These words, uttered over a hundred years BC, echo the self-same wish of many women today: to find love, grow old and live out their lives with the man they married. Aspirations they say made unattainable because their husbands are constitutionally incapable of being faithful: this 'wriggling' infidelity complicated by the complicity of other women, who compete, in a callous way, for the attentions of men, regardless of whether they are married or not.

This double betrayal leaves marriage unguarded, invalidates marriage vows and represents a real and present danger to relationships based on trust and truth.

Some women subscribe to the sociological suggestion that man of his nature is not monogamous, that their serial unfaithful husbands are Western examples of the cultural extent of polygamy. Polygeny or having more than one husband is rare: evolutionary psychology suggesting the biological importance of long-term relationships for women and their children while men's need to ensure their genetic continuity makes scattering their favours a much less discriminatory act.


"Rubbish" men reply, who in ever-increasing numbers have found themselves plunged into the abyss of shame, blame, depression and incomprehension that are common emotional reactions to loss of love. Additionally, women have had centuries to accustom themselves to the concept of concubines and mistresses.

This is unexplored territory for men: women as sexual predators is yet another unspeakable behavioural invasion by women into their world. It is not surprising then that so many men are psychologically traumatised and emotionally embittered by the experience of their wives having affairs.

But why do men or women have affairs? What emotional effect does the discovery of an affair have on them and what mental health consequences does this phenomenon have in societal terms?

Each marriage has its story, each instance of infidelity its own casualties, each partner their own pain. So too are the reasons cited for infidelity, personal but depressingly similar. Research interest in the 1980s spawned a host of explanations in best selling pop-psych literature. This located the problem in men, with what a Chicago psychologist described as the Peter Pan Syndrome, suffered by unhappy, irresponsible, self-centred narcissistic men hiding behind masks of false gaiety and sexual prowess, inwardly terrified of growing up, of intimate relationship and of abandonment.

Therapist Robin Norwood, explored the issue of "Women Who Love too Much" with advice to women repeatedly drawn into destructive relationships on how to avoid the pain of loving men who cannot love back. Probably Peter Pan Men. And if men were experiencing the betrayal of women at that time, publicly they remained silenced by their shame and by the lack of a social discourse that understood that for a women to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere is a brutal blow to a man's pride.

Research literature identifies three primary types of affair: intimacy avoidance affairs, a series of meaningless relationships deferring intimacy with anyone; sexual addiction affairs which are the province of those who seek to numb their inner pain by sex; and finally exit affairs providing a provocation or justification to leave the marriage. Men and women also cite the reason for affairs as marriage too young or under coercion; retaliation to even the score; middle age reassurance of sexual attraction; and the thrill of the danger of discovery.

These adrenalin addicts are unaware that this may be their way to stave off unidentified depression and loneliness in their lives. It is also suggested that women have "emotional affairs" and men have "sexual affairs" yet the anguish for men is that their wife could be sexual with another and for women that their husbands would receive emotional nurturance elsewhere.

Behind the research lie the casualties, more than 333,000 couples' marriages have ended in separation and divorce in this country: men and women confronting their deepest human fear, fear of being unlovable, fear of abandonment. This is the end of illusion, the assumption that the marriage had a meaning, that what was shared was special, that trust was true and love was to its "depth and breath and height".

As the sordid details of the affair, of subterfuge, connivance and collusion inevitably emerge, the jigsaw pieces created by lies of commission, deceits of omission and angry accusations that the suspicious spouse was paranoid, suddenly form a sensible picture, the pieces of the affair. It is this that precipitates psychological crisis, the need to review one's judgment, one's capacity to ever know another person or even to know oneself. This is a particular ambivalent grief for all involved, defined deftly by poet Cope who says: "I can't forgive you. Even if I could, you wouldn't pardon me for seeing through you. And yet I cannot cure myself of love for what I thought you were before I knew you."

Marie Murray is director of psychology at St Vincent's Hospital Fairview.